by Nick Young
It had started snowing in earnest. What had begun a hour before as a few fat, listless flakes was steadily growing into the nor’easter the radio and TV forecasters had been wringing their hands over for days. Great for the white Christmas crowd; lousy luck for the rest of humanity forced to make its way in a city already choked with filthy hummocks of snow, its gutters awash in icy gruel from a potent storm just three days before.
In his cramped Harlem apartment, Leroy Odoms thought about pouring what remained of his pint of whiskey into a glass before deciding it wasn’t worth it and tipped the few drops straight from the bottle.
'Now we got us some trouble, Josephine,' he said, depositing the container on a small wooden table next to him and casting an eye across the room to where his cat curled in her bed near the radiator. The slender calico raised her head, blinked once and then resumed napping. Leroy pushed himself up slowly from a faded swayback lounger and paused while he adjusted to being upright. At seventy-nine, his sense of balance was suspect, made more so by the alcohol he’d consumed. With one hand on the chair back to steady himself, Leroy retrieved the bottle and edged his way to the wall near the apartment entrance. He deposited the empty in a plastic trash bag that was nearly full just inside the door, then pulled a thin winter coat from a hook on the wall and clumsily fought to get one arm and then the other into the sleeves, muttering as he did:
'I said ‘trouble,’ Josephine, and that’s a fact. Christmas Eve, an’ me outta my sweet sauce. You know what that means, girl? That’s right! Gotta get on over to Manny’s before he closes up. But don’t you fret. I’ll be back before you know I’m gone, yes I will.'
And with that, he swiped at the bag and snatched it up, unbolted the door and shuffled into the dimly lit hall.
Chad Burrington stepped gingerly from the cab, trying to make sure he had his footing before shutting the taxi door. The Christmas storm and constant traffic had left the streets a greasy mess. Flaring his arms away from his sides for balance, he managed to navigate the few treacherous steps through the slush to the relative safety of the curb as the cab fishtailed back into traffic. He checked the street sign overhead framed against the dull slate sky — 128th and Malcolm X. Turning, he saw the National Jazz Museum to his right. Now he had his bearings and knew he needed to walk a block-and-a- half west on 128th to reach his destination.
The wind had picked up again, buffeting from the northwest. Chad watched as a gust nearly knocked over an elderly woman as she pulled a small wheeled cart laden with bags of groceries. Before setting off, Chad to drew the collar of his woolen overcoat tighter around his neck. On the heels of the snow had come the deep freeze, a Boxing Day gift from the Great White North.
If this wasn’t for Leroy, he thought, there’s no goddamn way I’d be out here.
At the newspaper office’s security desk, Leroy Odoms, with his easy manner and natty grey uniform, had been for several decades as much an essential feature of the lobby as the paper’s classic logo that adorned the wall. Over the years, the two men had struck up a rapport, sharing bits of themselves during their exchanges, bridging the gulf between a young white man’s privileged prep school upbringing and the life on the margins that had been Leroy’s lot.
As their relationship grew, part of it became an exchange of gifts at Christmastime — a beautiful card with a carefully lettered inscription from Leroy . . . a fifth of good bourbon from Chad. It was their private tradition, and each man took great pleasure in it.
But this year it had been interrupted, at least Chad’s end of it. He had planned to take the train up to New Haven on Christmas Eve to spend the holiday with his girlfriend and her parents, but when the paper sent him there on a story on the 23rd, he decided it just made sense to stay over. That meant he missed his customary holiday exchange with Leroy. He'd regretted it, especially when he returned to work that morning to find his friend’s card waiting for him. The message was especially warm and personal — 'I hope, my friend, we finally get us some peace on Earth' — and he had decided on the spot to surprise Leroy with a visit. He knew it was something of a crapshoot. When he checked in with the security office at the paper, he’d been told that Leroy had taken the week between Christmas and New Year’s off, that he was expecting relatives from out of town. That was no surprise to Chad. If there was one person he knew with a rich network of family and friends, it was Leroy: he talked about them all the time, regaling Chad with lovingly recounted anecdotes — a buddy in Chicago, a sister in Detroit, nieces and nephews in Atlanta.
Still, Chad felt, it was worth the trip uptown on the chance he would catch the older man at home, drop off his gift and leave without intruding on family time.
As he bent into the wind, Chad was so intent on protecting his face as much as possible from the chill and keeping his footing that he lost track of where he was until he caught sight of the Glendale Baptist Church and realized he’d walked a few doors too far. Doubling back, he arrived at his destination, Number 103, three stories of rust-red smooth stone. As he did, the front door opened and a man Chad guessed was in his mid-sixties emerged and made his way carefully down the ten steps to the sidewalk. He was shielded from the weather by a faded brown checked jacket and an orange watch cap pulled down tightly on his head.
'Excuse me,' Chad began, 'do you live here?'
'I’m the super,' replied the older man, eyes narrowing. 'Who’s asking?'
'My name is Chad Burrington. I’m looking for a friend — Leroy Odoms? Can you tell me which apartment is his?' The older man, suspicious, cocked his head to the right.
'Why you want to know that?'
'Well, like I said, I’m a friend,' Chad replied, raising the gift bag in his left hand. 'I have a present for him.' The super shook his head.
'I guess you ain’t heard,' he began. 'You’re too late.' The man’s manner had been off-putting from the get-go. It had annoyed Chad. The biting cold only deepened his pique.
'What do you mean, I’m ‘too late?’'
'No, you ain’t heard,' he said. 'Leroy’s dead, man.' Chad's head snapped back. Stricken, he moved his mouth to reply, but the words choked in his throat. The super took note, his face softening. 'Come on, man. Let’s get outta this goddamned cold.'
Inside the super’s apartment, Chad sat with his forearms planted on a small kitchen table, the edges of its gray marbled Formica top chipped with age. He needed all the support his arms could provide, such was the awful weight of the news he’d been given.
'Ain’t introduced myself,' the super began. 'Henry Towne. Ain’t got regular coffee. But I can make us up some Sanka,' he continued with a note of apology. 'Doctor’s orders — no caffeine.'
'Thank you — no.' Chad shook his head. 'God, I can’t believe he’s gone. What happened? Do you know?'
'Yeah. It was sad, man, real sad. Must have been sometime Christmas Eve — maybe seven, eight o’clock. I’m guessin’ it had to be dark. Leroy left out his apartment. Look like he just wanted to get rid of some trash before the storm got real bad. Anyway, cops say they found a small bag of garbage up at the top of the stairs — you got to walk down four of them to a space around the side of the building. That’s where we keep the trash cans. Anyway, the police say it look like Leroy must have slipped on some ice and fallen down them steps. Hit his head on the wall down there and knocked hisself clean out. Cops say he must have laid there while the snow covered him pretty much up, an’ . . . he just froze to death — '
'Aw, Jesus . . . Jesus!' muttered Chad, anguished.
'One of the other tenants found him yesterday afternoon, late.
It is a goddamned sad way for any man to leave this world,' Henry said bitterly,'especially a real good brother like Leroy.'
'I-I don’t know what to say . . . I — ' Chad’s felt his voice was disembodied, impossibly distant, as if rising from the bottom of a deep well.
'Ain’t nothin’ to say,' Henry said, crossing the room to his kitchen and opening a cabinet door above the stove. He took out two small glasses and a bottle of Hennessy. He set the glasses on the table, uncapped the whiskey and poured two fingers’ worth in each. 'Doctor say I can’t have no caffeine, but he ain’t said nothin’ about this.' He lifted one of the glasses and nudged one of Chad’s arms with it. 'Here. You need it, man. We both do.'
Henry Towne took a seat opposite Chad, the sound of the chair scraping along the floor was raw, jagged. Henry drank first. Chad hesitated, but then seized the glass and drained away all the liquor it held. Henry Towne did the same, then refilled their glasses as they sat in silence. Finally:
'What happens now?' Chad asked. 'Is Leroy’s family coming in for the funeral or to claim his body?' Henry’s brow creased, and he looked up from his glass.
'Family? Leroy ain’t got no family.'
'What do you mean?' Chad asked, incredulous. 'Of course, he does. He talked about them all the time.'
'His family — in Atlanta, nieces and nephews . . . a younger sister in Detroit.' Towne shook his head.
'I been here nineteen years, Leroy eighteen. Never knew him to have one relative to his place. Nobody. Just Leroy and Josephine, poor damned thing.' Chad turned his head in the direction of Henry’s gesture, past the sofa to where the cat napped in a corner.
'But friends . . . ,' Chad began. 'What about all friends he would tell me about?' Again, Henry Towne looked at him with some disbelief.
'No, man. I ain’t seen no family, and I ain’t seen no friends. Not ‘til you come today and say you his friend. But he got plenty of pictures, alright.'
'His place is loaded. I seen ‘em a couple of times when I went in to fix a leaky faucet or some such. I never paid no particular attention to ‘em, but I know there’s plenty.' Towne paused to take a fresh pull at his drink. 'I tell you what. Since you his friend and you come all this way uptown, I’ll let you into his place. See for yourself.'
The two men finished what was left of their drinks and stepped into the shadowy hall outside Henry Towne’s apartment and walked a short distance to the building’s stairwell.
On the second floor, when they reached Leroy’s place, Henry stopped as he was inserting the key into the lock and turned to Chad.
'Ain’t nothin’ been touched in here. The way you see it is the way he kept it.'
Chad was puzzled by the admonition until he entered the apartment, a tiny studio and tidy to a fault. There was room for a few pieces of tired furniture — recliner, coffee table and a TV. But that wasn’t what grabbed Chad’s attention.
It was the photographs, just as Henry Towne had said, dozens it seemed, on shelving that occupied every bit of the walnut paneled walls in the place.
'Didn’t I tell you?' Towne said, as he watched Chad’s eyes sweep from side to side. 'Listen, I got a couple errands to get out the way,' Henry went on, 'so if I ain’t back and you want to leave, just pull the door behind you. It’ll lock on its own.'
Chad mumbled his thanks.
Once Henry left, Chad set his gift bag on the small oval coffee table in front of the worn lounger. He slipped off his overcoat, draping it over the back of the chair. He wanted a closer look at the photos, so he crossed to the wall opposite. On a short length of shelf, there were two pictures, eight-by-tens, in matching frames, plain black. One of the photos, a girl in a swing — Chad guessed she was five or six — soars through the air, exhilarated, pushed by the outstretched arms of a man. He smiles broadly, summer sunshine spilling all around. Chad turned the photo over. On the back, a small strip of paper had been taped. It read: 'Lameesha with grandson Terence.'
In the other picture, a young boy clings to the back of a man, the child’s arms wrapped tightly around his neck. As in the other picture, the sun shines brightly and both the man and boy appear overjoyed. This photo, too, had an identifying label on the back: 'Bo, age three, with his daddy at the beach.' Next to each picture, a Christmas card rested on a tiny easel. Chad lifted one, with an idyllic scene of a moonlit snowy hillside dusted with silver sparkles. He opened it and read: 'To Dad — May your Christmas be merry and bright! Love from us all!' He closed the card and carefully replaced it on its stand, then picked up the small card next to the photo of the girl in the swing. Inside, it said: 'My own special Christmas card just for you, Uncle Leroy. Hope Santa brings you lots of presents! Love you, Lameesha.' Chad set the card back on the shelf and closed his eyes as a wave of melancholy washed over him.
The cards were not from Leroy’s son or a loving niece.
He knew because they were written with the same careful block printing as the fountain pen inscriptions in the cards Leroy gave him every year. Opening his eyes, he saw that there were holiday cards next to the rest of the pictures around the apartment. And it was those photographs that deepened Chad’s unbearable sadness, the ache that ate at his insides.
None of them were what they were portrayed to be.
Yes, the pictures were real. But they weren’t photos of anyone related to Leroy — no son or sister, nor were they any friend. All of the people in them were models. All of the photographs were throwaways, the inserts that came with the frames.
They were Leroy’s family.
Chad drew a deep breath, exhaled slowly and hung his head. After a long moment, he turned and went into the kitchen, opening and closing cabinet doors until he found a glass. Taking a seat in the old recliner, Chad set the glass on the coffee table, reached into the gift bag and lifted out the fifth of rye whiskey. It was Leroy’s preferred brand, and Chad uncorked the bottle and poured freely. And as he sat, he considered his own life, always filled with the vibrant ties of friends and relatives, what he’d always taken for granted. He had never known it otherwise. How long had it been for Leroy? Had he ever known it all?
Looking around the apartment, Chad raised his glass and gestured toward the photos.
'They were real to you, my friend . . . and you were very real to me.'
Outside in the street, there arose a sudden cacophony of car horns, shouts and curses.
Peace on earth would wait for another day.